While Shakespeare isn’t renowned for writing horror, he certainly understood the power of a macabre scene and the dramatic impact of horror when portraying just how evil a character could be.
He created a number of beautifully creepy and macabre scenes that hold definite appeal for horror fans, and which make great reading for October and Halloween.
Titus Andronicus is a confronting play. The story is full of enmity and revenge, a lot of violence, and a truckload of bloodshed and murder, with most of that happening on stage. It may already sound like a splatter horror storyline, but the final scene is particularly horrific.
Titus Andronicus is a Roman general who loses all but four of his sons in a war against the Goths, during which he has captured their queen, Tamora, her three sons and Aaron, a Moor, among others. Titus slays Tamora’s eldest son in a ritual killing to honour his dead sons, causing Tamora to swear hatred and revenge against him.
She isn’t kidding. Having married the Emperor Saturninus, Tamora has two of Titus’ four remaining sons framed for the murder of the Emperor’s brother — a crime committed by her own sons, Chiron and Demetrius — for which they are beheaded. Then she has her sons rape Titus’ daughter Livinia, cut off her hands and cut out her tongue so that she can’t tell anyone what they’ve done.
Titus feigns madness, ostensibly brought on by grief, until Tamora, trying to take advantage of his insanity, tries to make a deal with him. Titus isn’t falling for that, though: he wants revenge, and he intends that Tamora will suffer far more than he has done. Keeping up his ruse, he invites Tamora, Saturninus, and various others to a banquet in Rome’s honour.
In Act 5, Scene 3, Titus proves that he is a master of revenge, and Shakespeare proves that he is a master of the macabre.
In this scene, Titus himself serves dinner and encourages everyone to eat heartily of the feast.
He proceeds to kill his daughter Livinia in front of the guests and tells Tamora it’s actually her sons that killed her through their despicable actions. When Saturninus demands that they are called to answer for their actions, Titus reveals that they’re already there— they’ve been baked into the pie that Tamora and everyone else just ate for dinner.
At that point, the bloodshed starts again in full earnest.
Titus stabs Tamora to death with a knife.
Saturninus kills Titus.
Titus’ son Lucius kills Saturninus.
Lucius and Marcus, Titus’ other remaining son, expose the crimes of Tamora’s sons. They also expose Tamora’s love child to Aaron, the Moor who was captured by Titus at the same time as she was. Lucius and Marcus then invite the people of Rome to judge them for their deeds in avenging their brother and father. Instead of punishing them, the Romans make Lucius the new Emperor.
Aaron is buried alive, breast deep, so that he can regret his actions while starving to death. The Romans are forbidden to feed or help him.
Tamora is denied a funeral, and her body is thrown to the wild beasts and birds of prey.
This scene alone has seven murders, four of which are brutally violent and take place on stage, and one live burial.
You can read the rest of the scene, or the whole play, here.
William Shakespeare: writing splatter horror four hundred years before it became popular.